What to Say to Grieving Parents after a Child Dies

Parents mourn their lost babes of every age. Whether children died in utero or during infancy, whether they perished as toddlers or tweens or teens,  or whether death took them by surprise accident in young adulthood or inch-at-a-time illness in middle age, they died out of order. As humans, we’re wired to expect that children won’t die before parents, so when it happens, it’s unthinkably cruel, indescribably painful.

If you’ve wondered how to console friends who’ve lost a son or daughter, bless you. Too often, bereaved parents lament over deepened, inflicted pain from ill-thought comments. Or, when grieving parents most need support, they feel the added ache of uncomfortable, abandoned absence from those who avoid them.

I’ve not suffered the death of a child, although I’ve witnessed friends in such agony. I’ve listened to them and sat with them in their losses. But seeing and hearing and sitting isn’t knowing. Empathy extends only so far.*

Here’s what my friends have taught me as they’ve grieved their dear children’s deaths: 

weeping photo, cemetery, Babyland, grief, TealAshes.com

“Weeping Angel in Cemetery’s Babyland” (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You can’t fix grieving parents’ pain, but you can avoid worsening it.

  • Don’t tell bereaved parents “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand.” You don’t.
    • Losing your loved one may have introduced you to the pain of grief — and it’s good for you to remember that pain to help you attempt to empathize — but your loss didn’t teach you the intimate rending of self that happened to your grieving friends when their child died.
    • Few bereaved parents tell other grieving parents they know how the others feel — even if their losses seem similar. (Some might remember how they felt when they lost their own child while acknowledging the deep, unique, rawness of the newly mourning parents’ pain.)
  • Stop saying “at least” in any context. There’s nothing “least” about the loss of a child.
    • “At least” minimizes the significance of the loss, which grieving friends need validated and acknowledged, not diminished.
    • This includes not saying “at least your child lived x long …” or “at least your child won’t have to …” or “at least you have faith in the hereafter …” or “at least” anything.
  • Allow grieving parents the right to express (or not express) their faith in their own terms. Friends who believe in hereafter reunions with their beloved children nevertheless agonize over their here-and-now separation until then. (Those who preach or sermonize at them often counteract the comfort they intend to convey.)
  • Never suggest how “lucky” the parents are they won’t have to endure the hard parts of parenting their deceased child. They would gladly endure sleepless nights, endless diapering, terrible twos tantrums, teen angst, college costs, and every other parenting so-called hardship with their beloved child.
  • Never speak of replacing the deceased son or daughter. Loved ones aren’t replaceable.
  • Avoid telling mourning parents they “should” anything.
    • Not how they should …
    • Not what they should …
    • Not when they should …
    • Not why they should …
    • Their loss requires their timing and readiness and processing and coping and surviving.
    • Only they will know when they are capable of accomplishing more than breathing — which will be hard enough for months.
  • Avoid asking “How are you?”
    • It’s impossible to answer. Grief hurts too much. It’s in every cell. It overwhelms and overrides.
    • “Hello” works as a greeting. “How’re you doing?” does not.
    • If you catch yourself uttering the habitual “How are — ” turn it into “How glad I am to see you.”

You can offer increased support to your grieving friends by saying:

  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’m here.”
  • “Would you like to tell me about [speak the name of the deceased child]?”
  • “When you feel up to it, I’d love to share some of my favorite memories (or photos) of [name the child who died] with you.”
  • “It’s okay to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong.”
    • Telling bereaved parents they have to be strong (for each other, for other children, etc.) only reinforces how weakened and fractured they feel. Let them know you and others are there to pick up the pieces they can’t lift.
  • Acknowledge that mourning hurts without claiming you know how your friends feel. Acknowledging grief’s powerful, painful paralysis validates your friends’ pain.
  • “I know grieving hurts and saps your strength. Please let me ___ for you.”
    • Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help with anything,” be precise. Fill in the blank with specific tasks or services you can render for your friend.
    • Say: Please let me …
      • … bring you a drink of water, an aspirin, a soda …
      • … take your other kids to the park, out for ice cream, to buy funeral outfits, to school …
      • … walk your dog, clean cages or litter boxes, gather eggs, groom horses …
      • … breathe alongside you, take a walk with you, drive you to …
      • … call funeral homes, come to the cemetery, house- or pet-sit during the funeral …
      • … make phone calls to friends, family, employers, creditors  …
      • … mow the lawn, weed and water the garden, shovel the sidewalk, sweep the porch …
      • … fill the gas tank, check the tires, drive to the airport to pick up or take back family …
      • … bring a meal or a snack [where culture and tradition permits] …
      • … take you to lunch or bring you to my house for dinner …
      • … cover your mirrors [for those who sit shiva] …
      • … wash dishes, make beds, vacuum floors, wash windows, clean bathrooms, do laundry …
        • However, please DO NOT TOUCH anything belonging to the deceased child without explicit permission to do so. Parents (and siblings) might need to see the bed left a mess or smell their child’s scent on a dirty shirt or keep a tower of blocks in chaotic disarray where they last fell.

You can also offer comfort to grieving families through these actions:

  • Follow through on the activities you offered to do in the list above.
  • Listen to your bereaved friends — parents, grandparents, siblings, and other kin to the child who died. All are hurting. All need the safety of being able to vent without being judged or disciplined for expressing their emotions.
  • Mark the child’s birth and death dates in your calendar, and then …
    • A month before, a week before, and the day of, let your friends know you’re aware of their child’s upcoming birthday.
    • During the first year (and beyond), be aware that most bereaved parents dread the death date’s day of the month every month as it ticks off another milestone of their child’s absence.
    • Let your friends know you are thinking of, praying for, and hurting for them — and remembering their absent child — around these dates, especially near the sixth-month and annual death dates. The death anniversary will be difficult. Reach out.
    • Feelings will also be tender near the start and end of the school year when your friends will continue to be aware of what grade level their child would have entered or graduated from. Reach out in acknowledging support.
    • Repeat every year — unless your friends ask you not to bring it up anymore. Respect their wishes while continuing to reach out in nonspecific, loving support.
  • Listen again.
  • Listen later.
  • Listen longer.
  • Listen in silence.
  • Listen over the phone.
  • Listen in person.

Cut mourning parents some slack if they ignore phone calls, bail on social engagements, or don’t seem like themselves. They aren’t themselves anymore. Part of their self-identity (as Son‘s Mom or Daughter‘s Dad) was shattered.

  • They are still parents to their deceased child — and always will be — but will never again have the opportunity to physically parent that beloved child. That’s not something anyone “gets over.” Ever.
  • In time — much, much time — and with understanding support, your friends will eventually learn how to live onward again despite their grief.**

If you have children the same age as your friends’ deceased child, be aware that bereaved parents might seek more interaction with you and your family — or less. Continue reaching out either way.

And listen.

___

*Please forgive me, my dear friends who’ve mourned children, if I’ve tread on tender feelings or gotten this wrong. You’ve taught me more about endurance and living with loss than I’ve learned on my own, and my intention is to honor the grief you’ve borne for the children you’ve lost and continue to love.

**The title of my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them, came to mind as I wrote of living “onward again.” I’d planned to type “move forward,” but her better word landed at my fingertips instead.

 

Grief Therapy and a Friend’s Counsel

A  few weeks after my husband’s death, a woman I hadn’t seen in years suggested I meet with a grief therapist. “My mom went to counseling after her husband died,” my friend told me, “and it made a world of difference for her. Counseling helped her cope.”

My friend’s sincere concern (and attempted consolation) touched me. I felt the kindness of her intention, but her words scraped at already raw emotions. I balked.

I may have nodded as she spoke, but I stepped back, putting a wider space between us while my inner voice screamed over her advice:

I don’t need a therapist, thank you very much, and this sadness isn’t something I need to fix. I don’t want counseling — I want my husband back. I want my kids’ father back! How dare you — who still have your husband — tell me someone can fix my mental health? He’s only been dead a month — am I supposed to be okay with that?

My husband was dead. Talking it out with a stranger wouldn’t return him to life. It wouldn’t return me from my new, unwelcome status as a single parent to my familiar role as a married, stay-at-home mom.

But before I could put words to that inner indignation, another old acquaintance approached who’d not yet heard THE news. “Hi, Teresa. How’s your husband doing? Where is he today?”

I opened my mouth to answer, not knowing what I’d say.

Sometimes, back then, when grief was new and raw and all-consuming, I couldn’t allow myself to utter the horrible words, “He’s dead.”

Other times, I couldn’t stop myself from blurting, “My husband died.” (Looking back, I pity the poor store clerks, fellow shoppers, and service professionals I encountered.)

So how did I answer the second woman’s innocent, caring question that day — on the heels of hearing another’s advice?

A wordless sob.  I spun and — sobbing louder — ran as fast as I could.*

I ran from the idea of counseling as much as I ran from the need to escape before really making a scene.

For more than a year after that day, my friend’s suggestion rattled around in the back of my mind, usually associated with feelings of flight. Meanwhile, I met and networked with many, many fellow widows and widowers and began networking with others who’d lost loved ones as well. From time to time, these peers mentioned grief counseling, and how glad they were they’d participated.  I always thought, “Good for them … but not for me.”

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn't remove it.

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn’t remove it. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Yet my friend’s words echoed: Counseling helped her cope … Counseling helped her … Counseling helped …

When I was ready, I realized it might do me some good. Even then, it took a couple of months more (and several dialed hang ups) to schedule myself an appointment.

It did help. It didn’t take away or diminish my loss, but it empowered me with tools to reframe my life’s “new normal.”

(Thank you again, my friend, for the gentle suggestion you gave me that day more than five years ago. I remain grateful for it!)

Before you gently suggest grief counseling or therapy for bereaved friends, keep in mind:

  • Grieving is harder than it looks, so avoid criticism or commentary that implies your friends are mourning and/or coping the “wrong” way. (Of course, if they are doing or about to do something harmful to themselves or others, stepping in is essential — just as it would be for any of your friends who aren’t grieving!)
  • Grieving takes much, much longer than you think. (Hint: Year two is often more difficult than the first 365 days after a death.) Please, remember they are still in mourning long after the funeral — and reach out to them.
  • Sometimes it helps to enlist a professional, but until mourners are ready, counseling won’t help.**  If you think it would benefit your friends, gently mention the idea once. Wait a couple of months before you bring it up again. Then wait another couple of months.
  • Remember: Grief is an emotional state born of love and triggered by loss, but it has real, physical components, too. Grief can’t be cured or fixed or treated any more than you can cure or fix the love at its roots. But coping tools can (eventually) assist in adjusting to it.
  • Like anything new, it takes time to become proficient. Never, ever, ever imply to a griever they should be (or get) “over it by now.” Don’t say that. Ever. No, never. (Can you tell how strongly I feel about this?)

In the meantime, let your friends know that whether or not they seek a professional’s help in learning to manage their grief, you’ll stand by them — no matter what.

___

*I ran as fast as a woman with nerve damage in her ankle could “run” away while clomping along with a cane. (But that’s a whole different story of life back then…)

**See the Mayo Clinic’s page on Complicated Grief for information on warning signs that your friend may need professional help adjusting after a loss. The symptoms listed are normal for grievers (and even to be expected) during the first six months, according to that website, but may also last much longer. However, if they do not diminish of if they intensify over time, enlisting professional help may be necessary.

In Support of a Grieving Family

My friend’s son died yesterday morning.

In the final days of his life, his name became well-known beyond the circle of his immediate family and their friends. I hope there will be an equally widespread outpouring of support for his family. Please forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, but I’d like to reiterate principles to remember for anyone who may be reaching out to his grieving family.

[Note: Right now I’m too close to the emotions of the topic, so I’m modifying excerpts from two previous posts. (*For links to the original blog entries, see the end of this one.)]

Grieving the death of a loved one — especially a child — defies description.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins face. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called “6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/).

I’ve summarized her main points below, but please, please see her full article!

  1. Do NOT say Time heals all wounds.
  2. Do NOT say Let go … Move on.
  3. Do NOT say Have faith.
  4. Do NOT say Everything happens for a reason.
  5. Do NOT say At least…
  6. Do NOT say Be thankful.

I’ve not experienced the death of a child or sibling, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be.

___

Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child–of any age:

  • “You need to take care of your [surviving family members] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older ones) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children (and to many adults), no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do.
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of the loss, this and every other “at least” statement demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child–of any age:

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief.
  • Children need “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of how kids process difficult feelings.
  • “Would you like to talk about your [sibling, cousin, friend, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways.
  • The bereaved — including children — should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read what is and isn’t helpful to mourning families. While nothing you can do or say will make things “better,” you can make an uplifting difference by showing that you care.

__

*See the full original post texts here: https://tealashes.com/2014/01/28/do-not-say-these-to-a-bereaved-parent-or-any-other-mourner/

and here: https://tealashes.com/2013/11/20/for-grieving-children-wear-blue-on-childrens-grief-awareness-day/

Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

Grief can’t tell time, but it obsesses — I repeat — obsesses over calendars. It highlights dates better than a Fortune 500 CEO’s social secretary. Grief tracks anniversaries better than hungry jungle cats on a grey-muzzled gazelle tending a newborn.

I thought I was going crazy. Without hesitation I answered anyone who asked me how long it had been. I told them exactly how long since my husband died.

My answers unnerved people, but I wasn’t sure which aspect disturbed them.  Was it because I already knew the answer (perhaps I’d channeled my inner-psychic to anticipate and answer their question)? Or was it because my too precise answer was detailed to the point of confusion?

I couldn’t answer a simple, “It’s been four months,” and leave it at that.  No, I had to say, “It’s been 4 months and 2 days (if you go by the date) but it’s been 4 months and 5 days (if you go by which week of the month and day of the week it is). If you’re counting a month as 4 weeks , then it’s been 4 1/4 months, plus another 5 days, but it might be easier to call it 4 months and 12 days.”

(By this point the kind soul who’d bravely addressed the calendar-crazed widow probably remembered the snarky adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mistaking my pause for an end while searching for escape , my poorly rewarded friend would back away slowly, probably recalling Boy and Girl Scout merit badges earned for escape from rabid creatures. Avoid eye contact. Don’t make sudden moves. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention!)

Alas for my friend, I’d paused only to catch my breath. “It’s really been more than 4 months, because that night of the 3rd week of the month was earlier this week and because the date of the week was a couple of days ago. It’s actually been 17 weeks and 5 days. But it’s  been 124 days, so that makes it more like 4 months and 4 days, counting 30 days per month.”

As much as I needed and appreciated hearing the question, the same person seldom asked “How long has it been?” twice. (Can’t imagine why …)

From this side of a little over 3 years later (Aren’t you relieved I left it vague this time?), it sounds a little nutty.  Okay, I admit it sounds nuttier than a jumbo bag of mixed varieties, most with slightly cracked shells.

It was obsessive, yes, but here’s the part you need to understand for the sake of your grieving friend:

My compulsive calendar counting  was as normal as  it was essential.

It wasn’t until I connected with a network of thousands of young widows and widowers that I realized it wasn’t morbid for me to know — and yet be confused by — the exact number of days, weeks, and months that had passed. I wasn’t alone in my obsession over “how long” it had been! I. Wasn’t. Alone.

It took time — more than 17 months (or more than 68 weeks, or  476 days …) — before I understood why this was so important and automatic for me (and perhaps for the others).

Think of traveling before September 11, 2001. Now think of the trauma of that day (or any other “big” date that impacted your life). Think of traveling immediately after that day as compared to today.

Everything changed.

The loss of my husband did that. It destroyed my internal packing and security checklists. It rummaged through my heart’s luggage and tossed it onto the Tarmac. It permanently rewrote my itinerary.  Everything shifted into the Departure column. Grief reset my life schedule.

No wonder my brain couldn’t let it go.

How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies

People die every day, but learning the right thing to say when death happens to someone you know is not an everyday skill.

Death isn’t the only devastating loss we humans experience, but it’s among the hardest to handle. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been greatly blessed by the people in my life, and I know many who’ve experienced far more losses than I. But I’ve lost my own share to the Reaper: my grandparents, my mother, a cousin, a nephew, a brother-in-law, my father-in-law. My husband.

When I became a widow, I began noting the broad range of “right” ways others offered condolences. Some were perfect, as if Shakespeare and Freud stood on the comforters’ shoulders, whispering expertise in their ears. Their consoling compassion flowed as naturally as their breath.

Other friends’ imperfect offerings were just as welcome, even delivered with stammering hesitation or stumbled wording. I saw (and heard) that they were anxious enough for my well-being to overcome their own discomfort, and I loved them for their awkward attempts. [See posts filed under “What to Say.”]

I even appreciated the efforts of those whose comfortless condolences fell flat. I assumed they meant well, no matter how poorly they delivered. They tried, and their ineffective cracks at compassion showed they cared, no matter how clueless they were to how their words sounded.

I also encountered undeniably “wrong” things to say to someone grieving a devastating loss. A few of them belonged to the “meant well” group, but others were so selfishly stated that not even Pollyanna could find anything “glad” about them. [See posts filed under “Don’t Say This.”]

As I’ve met with other widows and widowers and with bereaved families whose losses varied from my own, I found my experiences weren’t unique. Wonderful, caring friends, relatives, and coworkers want to uplift their friends and colleagues in their losses. Neighbors act to show kindnesses that reach beyond tangible, outward gestures, touching the troubled souls of those nearby, easing the burdens of the bereaved.

And a few well-meaning folks, perhaps like you, could use concrete advice as to what to say and do — and what NOT to say and do — for a person you know who has lost a loved one.